By: Leonardo Rodríguez Negrón
At 2:00 in the afternoon the quiet Jobos St. in Ponce is usually overflowed by parents picking up their kids at two schools nearby. Gloria sits on her balcony, drink a cup of freshly brewed black coffee and look at the herd of backpack-carrying kids running by.
“Do you take your coffee with milk or black?”
Apparently, it’s a habit to greet her guests with coffee. Although the warm afternoon would not suggest a hot drink, the smell was too good to abstain.
Gloria likes her coffee strong, which in some way was appropriate. Her presence is a rare combination of commanding and welcoming. She is quick on her feet and very alert, in such a way you would have trouble guessing Gloria María De Jesús is 75. “I stay active”, she said. Yes, she does. The truth is that Gloria does not enjoy all the free time a woman of her age is entitled to.
“I wake up every day at 5:00”. By 9:00 AM her house chores are done. Couple of years back, taking care of the grandchildren would consume most of her day. “I took care of them during the day, while their parents worked”. But now that they’ve grown, Gloria takes care of other kids.
Gloria has worked in the Belgica neighborhood council, “Los Hijos de Bélgica”, most of the 55 years she has lived there, but her enrolment has become very active in the past years. There, she has the opportunity to help organize different types of events for kids and families around the neighborhood. From school material giveaways to play days, these activities rely mostly on donations by public or private entities.
“These kids come from poor families, must of them relying on food stamps and other government welfare”, Gloria said pointing houses across the street. She is one of the few who lived in a concrete house.“We have their wellbeing in mind”. Gloria thinks the best way to keep the kids off the streets is by keeping them on school. “You have to make them have fun learning”, she continued.
Gloria’s favorite activities are summer camps and the “Three Kings” festivity. “Summer camps keep kids busy in the summer and teenagers have the opportunity to work and earn some money”, she stated. “But the Three Kings are special”.
Three Kings of Bélgica. For many years, Gloria’s house has served as starting point for the “Three Kings” visits throughout Ponce.
On Christmas, Belgica’s “Three Kings” tours for various areas of Ponce, often giving small presents or candy to children. Gloria organizes the destinations, recruits the “Three Kings” (different each year), arrange transportation and, her favorite part, taking care of the suits.
“It’s really a magical occasion, it’s more about the tradition than the gifts” Gloria continued, going through some pictures of this year Kings. For her, the children’s faces as they see the Three Kings carriage down the road is her most fulfilling satisfaction. “It reminds me of my kids when they participated. My late husband and me loved it so much”
His name was Israel. They got married when Gloria was 17 and lived on that house ever since. They had two kids, Millie and Israel, or Israelito as he goes by. While she raised them, Israel served in Korea, returned and became an accounting Professor at the University of Puerto Rico in Ponce.
“He was a good husband, and father”. Every day, Israel would bring Millie and Israelito candies from the store down the street and sat down for dinner. “He didn’t smoke or drink, but one day he got drunk during a family reunion” Gloria remembered laughing. “I smacked him, hard, and he never did it again”
Gloria got up, went inside and brought a small wooden box. Inside, there were a couple of pictures of Israel in his US Army uniforms, from cadet to sergeant. She showed his medals too, from where the Purple Heart stands out. The Purple Heart medal is given by the US Army to those injured or killed during service. “He was shot in the thigh, it was nothing, he recovered very quickly” Gloria continued.
Israel medals. From left to right: National Defense Service medal, Purple Heart and the Korean Service medal.
“It was cancer that took him away from us”.
Israel died 18 years ago, weeks before Israelito’s high school graduation. June Martinez, a close relative to the family described Israelito as “shattered” by the loss of his father. “It was all very sudden, we didn’t had time to understand what was going on”. June remembers calling Millie at work and telling her that Israel may not make it through the week; that she needs to come home.
Gloria agreed Israelito was the most affected. “But I had to stay tough, they needed it”, Gloria continued on a dry tone. “But they went to college, and graduated, and have their jobs an family and became good persons”
Millie became a nurse and had three of her own. Israelito studied engineering and is expecting his second daughter this June. Although none of them lives close by, they visit most weekends. Her greatest pleasure continues to be having the house full of her grandchildren.
Gloria and her figures of the “Three Kings”.
Gloria expects to be around a while longer, or in her own words “hasta que Papá Dios lo permita”. She found that even the tinniest things make a difference, especially in children. Belgica needs more people like her, who expecting nothing in return, donate their time and energy hoping to make something good.